Over the past decade or so, the term “culture” has acquired a kind of mythical, yet meaningless, value. When a team or a company succeeds, it couldn’t have happened without a strong “organizational culture” or if someone hadn’t established a “culture of winning.” When there’s any kind of spectacular failure, there was “no culture of accountability” — or, worse yet, there was a culture, but it was a “toxic culture.”
Culture matters, obviously. There are bad places to work and there places to work. If you’ve worked more than one job, you know that no two organizations are the same, and it’s also true for sports teams: vibes can be great, vibes can be awful. It’s just that culture sometimes — many times — comes to serve as a stand-in for all the things we can’t control, can’t understand or can’t measure. And, well, you rarely hear about teams that lose, but also have a great culture, or those that win despite a toxic culture (other than, perhaps, the Houston Astros). So, does winning breed culture? Or vice versa?
Whatever direction the causal arrow points, there is one soccer team that has never won the thing it wants to win and has no culture whatsoever.
Earlier this month, our very own Julien Laurens reported that Kylian Mbappe, mere months after signing one of the most lucrative contracts in soccer history, has decided he wants to leave Paris Saint-Germain in January. Among his frustrations: the club not purchasing a No. 9 for him to play off, the lack of added center-back signings, and the continued presence of Neymar in the squad.
How could it all disintegrate so quickly? At Paris Saint-Germain, the lack of culture and the lack of winning are impossible to pull apart.
What cultures have won?
My colleague Kevin Arnovitz has written eloquently and exhaustively about “culture” in the NBA. Superstars have a bigger impact on team success in basketball than in any other sport, and the prevailing team-building strategies over the past 15 years fit into one of three buckets:
Gather as many superstars as you can
Maintain enough roster flexibility with short-term contracts and young players so you can eventually gather the right superstars
Actively try to lose as many basketball games as possible so you get rewarded with a high draft pick that eventually turns into a superstar, who can then attract more superstars
Pure prioritization of talent, of course, is at odds with culture — or it can be your entire culture. The Los Angeles Lakers have never innovated the sport in any kind of way, but they’ve defined themselves as the place where stars gather. It has led to massive success — the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal era, a title with LeBron James — and some equally massive whiffs. (See: this Sports Illustrated cover or the state of the current team.) Under former general manager Daryl Morey, who’s often dubbed the Billy Beane of basketball, the Houston Rockets constantly turned over the roster in search of minor upgrades that, Arnovitz writes, encouraged employees to believe “that they’re engaged in a higher purpose to innovate and influence the sport.”
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Meanwhile, under coach Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs won five titles with a team of very specific, selfless-seeming superstars who were all acquired in the draft and developed in-house. The Miami Heat, in what’s somehow unironically referred to as “Heat Culture,” have built an organization where, Arnovitz writes, “perfectionists and workaholics flourish.” This allowed them to attract superstars like James and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010 — then allowed the team to continue to flourish even after they left.
So, what are soccer’s preeminent cultures? Let’s take the four most successful clubs of the past half-decade or so: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Since they hired Guardiola in 2013, Bayern’s ethos has shifted toward pedigreed, uber-athletic, attack-first players. For good or ill, there’s an established hierarchy — filled by former Bayern players — that the managers as well as the players fit within, and there’s a clear way they’re trying to play.
At Madrid, it’s the closest thing to soccer’s version of the Lakers’ model: a team that won with stars in the past and can now credibly claim it’s where stars still must come if they want to keep winning. The current version of the side has beautifully blended a number of young upstarts with the remaining core of the team that won three Champions League titles in a row. The manager — whether it’s Zinedine Zidane or Carlo Ancelotti — works best when he’s a kind of guru figure: someone the players love, rather than a taskmaster or demanding tactical zealot. For all the success, the club has had very little influence on the tactical arc of the sport — and couldn’t care less about that.
For Liverpool, the culture is pretty clearly established by Jurgen Klopp, a high-energy, super-demanding coach who’s also one of the more empathetic figures you’ll ever find in a position of this much power in the world of competitive professional sports. Since Klopp arrived in 2015, there have been approximately zero stories about intrasquad discord or drama. There’s a culture of open-mindedness and aggression that I think works particularly well because of the players they tend to target: undervalued talents rather than established stars. Thiago Alcantara is really the only famous veteran they’ve signed during the Klopp era — and he fits the current club ethos as well as anyone.
At Manchester City, it’s a culture built in the image of Pep Guardiola — and with way more money than everyone else. They’ve ruthlessly expanded across the world and hired some of the smartest analysts; they seem to revel, in a sense, at being the brainiac bad guy. Just look at their coach!
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While Liverpool have given plenty of room to players with limited or sloppier technical profiles, just about every player Manchester City has signed has to be able to take down a ball dropped from outer space and dribble past a defender inside of a phone booth. They’ve made roughly one exception to this rule since Guardiola arrived, and he’s on pace to shatter the Premier League’s goals record.
But what about PSG?
It’s pretty clear what kind of brand PSG want to be: they want every soccer fan across the world under the age of 25 to wear their jerseys. That’s why they’re wearing Jordan-brand uniforms, and it’s why they signed Neymar, Mbappe and Lionel Messi. It’s why they signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s why they signed Thiago Silva and Gianluigi Donnarumma, and Sergio Ramos and Achraf Hakimi, and on and on.
But what kind of team do they want to be — beyond a video game darling?
Well, they don’t really want to be a team. The Qatari Sovereign Investment Fund purchased the club back in 2012, and they weren’t buying PSG because they wanted to experience what it’s like to win a lot of soccer games. They didn’t even buy the team because of the potential financial benefits that come with owning a soccer team that wins a lot of soccer games. No: they bought the team as part of a concerted effort, culminating in the upcoming World Cup, to change the global perception of the nation of Qatar.
Per Amnesty International’s most recent report, here is one possible perception: “Despite government reforms, migrant workers continued to face labor abuses and struggled to change jobs freely. Curtailment of freedom of expression increased in the run-up to FIFA World Cup 2022. Women and LGBTI people continued to face discrimination in law and practice.”
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The club chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, hasn’t even been all that coy about it. I always come back to this quote he gave in 2016. “Our aim is to make the club an institution respected around the world,” he said. “If we are going to make that happen, we have to win the Champions League. That will take the club to a new dimension. Any team that wins it is seen differently by everyone else.”
He doesn’t want to win the Champions League for the sake of winning the Champions League; he wants to win because he thinks winning will change the way people see his club. And if you’re more concerned with appearances than substantive achievements, is it any surprise that your organization ends up being hollow? A kind of self-defeating organism that completely falls apart at any sign of adversity but that also seems to actively court that exact adversity it struggles so much to deal with?
And so you’re left with a team that, by all metrics, is playing as well as it has in a couple of seasons. This ill-fitting, uber-famous front three is firing on all cylinders — yet one of them wants to leave.
Mbappe’s demands seem pretty silly from the outside. Putting aside the Neymar drama, his desires for a traditional No. 9 and another center-back seem to completely misunderstand both the prevailing trends of the sport (well-rounded players up and down the field) and the composition of his current team (PSG have plenty of center-backs!). In September, he complained about the lack of freedom he’s given within PSG’s tactical structure compared to with France and, well, he’s pretty much the only person in the world who actually thinks that Didier Deschamps’ France is a creative haven. Plus, if you’re to be on a Champions League-winning team, everyone is expected to make at least some minor sacrifices to fit within the larger system. That’s just how this sport works.
But maybe Mbappe — and everyone else — doesn’t even know what to expect. As a player, you know exactly what you’re going to get if you go to one of those four other clubs.
Although I’m still skeptical that “culture” is the true driver of success at any of these clubs, they all certainly have solid foundations. Bayern Munich have built up years of institutional memory, and while “FC Hollywood” isn’t the smoothest identity, it’s still an identity. Real Madrid have been winning Champions Leagues since the mid-1950s, and in good times players come to Real Madrid with the expectation that they’re going to win the Champions League.
Liverpool have built up a similar expectation of European success and reestablished themselves among the best teams in the world by finding a coach who innately understands the club’s particularly intimate relationship with its fanbase. And while Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership is engaged in a very similar reputation-laundering project, the owners at least understood that they had to establish some kind of identity for it to work. They’ve thrown tons of money at the problem, but they also gave the keys to the guys who helped build the most defined club culture — the early-aughts Barcelona teams — of the 21st century.
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At Bayern, you’re expected to win every game you play. At Madrid, you play to win the Champions League. At Liverpool, you’re an equal-part member of a heavy metal band. And at City, you’re going to attempt to deconstruct the sport of soccer down to the molecular level. You know this from the moment you sign the contract.
At PSG, the only thing you know you’re going to get is a ton of money. They change coaches every season or two, and the coach is being frequently undermined by the players, or the new director of football, or even by Khelaifi himself. In other words, there is no culture — beyond constantly failing in Europe and feeling incredibly aggrieved by outside forces whenever it inevitably happens.